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When last we checked in on the dispute over Beijing’s land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea, several dozen protesters from the Philippines were camped out on Pagasa island in a demonstration aimed at raising awareness of what they say is an illegal occupation of the Spratlys.
To let China tell it, it’s the other way around.
That is, the Filipino troop presence in the archipelago represents an illegal occupation of territory that belongs to Beijing and China would be well within its rights to forcibly expel the occupying army.
The entire dispute centers around China’s construction of some 3,000 acres of new sovereign territory atop reefs in disputed waters. Although other countries have undertaken similar efforts, Beijing’s project is by far the most ambitious and Washington’s regional allies fear China is attempting to build what amount to a series of forward military operating bases in the Spratlys. The argument over the new islands reached a crescendo in October when the US sent a warship to the region in what Washington called a “freedom of navigation” exercise but what was, in reality, a show of force.
For those unfamiliar with the history here, the alarm bells didn’t start ringing in earnest until April, when satellite images showed China was building a runway on Fiery Cross reef. The 10,000 foot airstrip is long enough to accommodate fighter jets and surveillance aircraft and has been variously described as “a game changer” and an effort to “vastly expand China’s zone of competition with the US.” Here’s a look at the runway in question when it was one-third complete:
On Saturday, Beijing tested the runway for the first time, a move which drew sharp criticism from the islands various claimants. Vietnam, for instance, has filed a formal diplomatic complaint.
“China’s first landing of a plane on one of its new island runways in the South China Sea shows Beijing’s facilities in the disputed region are being completed on schedule and military flights will inevitably follow,” Reuters writes, adding that “China’s increasing military presence in the disputed sea could effectively lead to a Beijing-controlled air defence zone, ratcheting up tensions with other claimants and with the United States in one of the world’s most volatile areas.” Here’s more:
Vietnam said the plane landed on Jan 2 and launched a formal diplomatic protest, while Philippines Foreign Ministry spokesman Charles Jose said Manila was planning to do the same. Both have claims to the area that overlap with China.
“That’s the fear, that China will be able take control of the South China Sea and it will affect the freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight,” Jose told reporters.
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said China’s landing of the plane “raises tensions and threatens regional stability.”
Senator John McCain, the chairman of the influential U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, criticised the Obama administration for delaying further “freedom of navigation” patrols within 12 nautical miles of the islands built by China.
China has been building runways on the artificial islands for over a year, and the plane’s landing was not a surprise.
The runway at the Fiery Cross Reef is 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) long and is one of three China was constructing on artificial islands built up from seven reefs and atolls in the Spratlys archipelago.
The runways would be long enough to handle long-range bombers and transport craft as well as China’s best jet fighters, giving them a presence deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia that they have lacked until now.
The airfield on Fiery Cross Reef will serve to “significantly” cut travel time between the Spratly islands and mainland China, the official Xinhua news agency reported, citing a top engineer from the transport ministry.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at the weekend that the test flight was intended to check whether the runway met civilian aviation standards and fell “completely within China’s sovereignty”.
Asked about McCain’s remarks on Tuesday, she said: “We hope the U.S. can take an objective and fair attitude, and not make statements that confuse the situation and are harmful to regional peace and stability,” she said.
Right. So once again, both sides are accusing the other of jeopardizing “regional peace and stability.” And while Beijing insists the airstrip is being tested for civilian purposes, analysts say it’s just a matter of time before fighter jets touch down on Fiery Cross. “The next step will be, once they’ve tested it with several flights, they will bring down some of their fighter air power – SU-27s and SU-33’s – and they will station them there permanently,” Leszek Buszynski, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre says. “That’s what they’re likely to do.”
After that, China will effectively establish a no-fly zone according to Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute. “As these facilities become operational, Chinese warnings to both military and civilian aircraft will become routine,” Storey said. “These events are a precursor to an ADIZ, or an undeclared but de facto ADIZ, and one has to expect tensions to rise,” he says.
If that’s the case then the ball is now back in Obama and Abe’s court. Pressure will now mount for the US and Japan to take concrete steps to deter China from effectively seizing control of key shipping lanes through which some $5 trillion in global trade passes each year. How far Washington is willing to go to beat back Xi’s ambitious maritime powerplay is as yet unclear, but if the past is any guide, you can expect The White House to err on the side of cowardice caution.